Cuba’s Jews: People of a Solitary Star
Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
When I began to do fieldwork as an anthropologist in Cuba, the country where I was born, the island was experiencing its worst economic crisis since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of Russian subsidies, the government sought relief by opening the door to God and the spirits, allowing prayers to be uttered out loud again. The Cuban Communist Party decreed in 1991 that even party members could have religious affiliations, and a year later it was written into the Cuban constitution that the state would be secular rather than atheist.
As a Jewish Cuban, I was curious about the Jews on the island. I had no trouble finding the major Jewish community center in Cuba, the Patronato synagogue. It was located just half a block from the building in Havana where I’d lived as a child. From the windows of our old apartment, we had looked out everyday at the enormous pale blue arch of the synagogue. There was a photograph of me in front of the Patronato which I’d stared at dozens of times, trying to imagine who I would have become had I grown up in Cuba.
It so happened that the Patronato was the epicenter of the Jewish revitalization which was beginning to take place when I first arrived in 1991. Although I rarely attend synagogue in the United States, in Cuba I was a regular at the Patronato. That was the place to find the Jews in Havana who were coming back to their Judaism or discovering Judaism as recent converts. I felt moved watching them try to figure out what it meant to be openly Jewish after the revolutionary heyday of the preceding decades. Until the early 1990s, all religious and spiritual activity had been downplayed, and ethnic and minority identities, including gay and lesbian identities, had been suppressed in the effort to create a united nation.
I remember well a conversation in 1993 with Rebeca Botton Behar, a Jewish woman then living in Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern end of the island, where the revolutionary struggle began. Although we shared a last name, she was not a relative, though she might have been, since her family, like my father’s, was Sephardic and from Turkey. As she took me on an informal tour of the shrine of La Caridad del Cobre, the Virgin of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba, high in the green hills surrounding the city of Santiago, she confessed, “In times of trouble, I’ve always prayed to the Virgin.” The synagogue had shut down; she had nowhere else to go to pray. Lowering her voice to a whisper, she added, “They had no choice but to allow religion back into Cuba. All these years we’ve believed that Fidel Castro and the government could resolve all of our problems. But Castro isn’t God. That was our big mistake, to think that any human being, no matter how charismatic, could be like God.” Later, she would spearhead the effort to reopen the synagogue in Santiago, and soon after, she would leave for Miami, but when I first knew her she was a Jew in Cuba who improvised her prayers in a Catholic shrine.
The tiny Jewish community on the island today is only a fragment of the bustling community of 15,000 that developed from the turn of the twentieth century until the triumph of Castro in 1959. American Jewish expatriates, Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jews from Poland, and Sephardic Jews from Turkey who spoke Judeo-Espanyol, had all thrived in Cuba. Between them they had built eight synagogues on the island, buried their dead in an array of Jewish cemeteries, and left other Jewish traces scattered in towns and villages from Havana to Guantánamo. The vast majority of Cuban Jews—professionals, merchants, shopkeepers, and peddlers who lost their livelihoods when businesses and properties were expropriated after the revolution—left the country after the revolution and settled in the United States, largely in Miami with other Cuban exiles.
In an island of 11 million Cubans, there are now about 1,000 Jews. Only a handful are Jewish on both sides of their families; most have a mixed heritage or are converts who have married people of Jewish descent. Yet despite the small size of the community, Jews in Cuba have gained national and international attention for their vitality in keeping alive the flame of Jewish memory on the island. Persisting in the midst of Castro’s socialist revolution, they have gained the reputation of being so exotic and mysterious that they have come to symbolize something bigger than themselves, the way a few hundred hunting and gathering !Kung of the Kalahari desert in Africa were once viewed as the last living vestiges of pre-modern humanity.
Going to Cuba to see the Jews who remain is a touristic-anthropological-Jewish solidarity mission. In the last 15 years, Jewish humanitarian missions led by the American Joint Distribution Committee, B’nai Brith, Chabad, the Jewish Conservative movement, and many other Jewish-American and international Jewish associations have found their way to Cuba.
The Jewish missions have put in place an impressive educational program to train a new generation of Jewish leaders and community members. Even without a permanent rabbi, a small cadre of dedicated leaders have scoured the island in search of hidden Jews. Out of the ashes of revolutionary disdain for religious and ethnic identity, a Jewish community has arisen that is filled with enthusiastic participants whose knowledge of Jewish history and tradition offers hope that Jews will have a future in Cuba.
But this community is also in constant flux. As people become more involved in the Jewish community, many choose to leave for Israel, seeking greater possibilities for economic and spiritual development. Their departure is made easier by the fact that they experience no harassment from the Cuban government for choosing to leave, and can return to visit later without difficulty. Although the government has always frowned upon Cubans who want to “abandon” the country and the Revolution, the immigration of Jewish Cubans to Israel is viewed as a legitimate desire to “make aliyah” and ascend to a fuller Jewish life in the Jewish homeland.
Watching throughout the 1990s as Jews in Cuba found their way to a Jewish identity amid the gaze of all the outsiders who had a stake in their Jewish awakening, I decided to write a book about this emerging community that mixed stories and photographs. In 2001 I met the photographer Humberto Mayol in Havana after seeing an impressive collection of his black and white photographs focusing on the Afrocuban religions of Palo Monte and Santería. I asked him if he’d be interested in photographing another religious and ethnic community—the Jews in Cuba. He wasn’t Jewish and knew nothing about Jews, but he agreed right away. Over the next five years we traveled all over Cuba searching for Jews, he with his camera, and I with my pen, working together to reveal the conjuncture of Jewishness and Cubanness, visually and textually.
The Jewish revival that was in full force by the late 1990s soon made it clear to the world that it would be the responsibility of the four percent of Jews who stayed in Cuba to guard the Jewish legacy and keep it from disappearing. It is the Jews on the island today who learn to chant from the Torahs brought 80 years ago from Poland and Turkey.
It is they who continue to bury their dead in the Jewish cemeteries of the island, surrounded by palm trees. Upon them has fallen the burden of preserving the scattered bits and pieces of Jewish life, the archaeological relics that have survived. They are the keepers of the yellowing satin kippah worn at a Jewish wedding in 1959, as the Revolution began.
Unlike the pre-revolutionary Jewish community of Cuba, which had few converts to Judaism, the post-revolutionary Jewish community is almost exclusively made up of converts. With support from the Joint Distribution Committee in New York, Jewish teachers from Argentina are sent to provide Jewish education, and rabbis periodically visit to perform circumcisions, weddings, and conversions. To become a Jew you need documents, and two brothers in Camaguey, whose paternal grandfather is Jewish and was circumcised at the age of 67, hold up proof of their Jewishness—their conversion papers.
On my first visits to Cuba in the early 1990s, I’d spend the Sabbath in the Patronato, the once elegant but crumbling Havana synagogue where I’d gone as a child. A handful of other congregants were there. They didn’t know Hebrew and couldn’t follow the religious service. Pigeons flew in and out through the torn roof.
By 2002, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg had visited the Jews of Cuba. While in Havana for a film festival, he’d asked to be taken to the Jewish cemetery and to the Patronato, which was by then newly renovated with support from the Cuban Jewish community in Miami and American Jewish organizations, complete with air conditioning, a computer room, a video screening room, and a new roof. Spielberg knelt and shook hands with little Moishe, or Moisés—a five-year-old who knows by heart the blessings for the washing of the hands and the partaking of bread and wine. Spielberg was so moved that before leaving he wrote the Jews of Cuba a note—“When I see how much cultural restoration has been performed by you and others, it reminds me again about why I am so proud to be a Jew.” He added the words “Thank you” before signing his name, as if to express his gratitude to the Jews in Cuba for simply existing.
From pigeons in the synagogue to Spielberg in the synagogue—that defines the dramatic arc of transformations I have witnessed as a traveler to Jewish Cuba—a Jewish Cuba I never forget might have been mine had my own Jewish Cuban family stayed on the island.
The idea that Jewish life has been possible at all under Fidel Castro contributes to the exotic appeal of Cuba’s Jews, who maintain their identity in a web of contradictions and paradoxes. Since Israel votes to support the U.S. embargo, Cuba is officially pro-Palestinian and doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel. Yet Israel, together with Spain, is a major investor in the Cuban economy. Jews in Cuba suffer no discrimination. In fact, the Cuban government goes out of its way to accommodate Jewish needs, neither interfering with the functioning of the kosher butcher shop in Havana nor the distribution of matzah; neither interfering with activities in the synagogues nor the numerous departures of community members to Israel. Although the Cuban press frequently expresses anti-Zionist views, there is wide admiration and respect for the Jewish people. Schindler’s List was shown on Cuban television and was the subject of much sympathetic discussion. It has not escaped the notice of the Cuban government that American Jews have fueled the revitalization of the Jewish community and that they have also been among the most active grassroots diplomats, engaging with Cubans through cultural exchanges and volunteer medical assistance programs.
Fidel Castro, some say, has a soft spot for the Jews, possibly for personal reasons. Might Castro be a hidden Jew? His daughter, Alina Fernández Revuelta, claims that one of Castro’s grandfathers was a Jew from Istanbul. But all that Castro has ever told reporters is that his Jewish identity harks back to the days of the Inquisition, when Spanish Jews took on names like Castro and became conversos (Jewish converts to Catholicism) to escape being burned at the stake.
Irrespective of Castro’s family tree, it is well known that Cubans as a whole tend to think of themselves as the “Jews of the Caribbean.” On the island, Cubans see Cuba and Israel as similarly fierce and independent nations, small in size but huge in ambitions, surrounded by historical enemies who seek to topple their efforts to build paradise on earth. Cuban exiles and immigrants, in contrast, see themselves as diasporic in the classic Jewish sense, as, in the words of poet Rafael Campo:
Such shared Jewish and Cuban sensibilities make the actual Jews still living in Cuba a potent symbol of what it means to search for a home in the world today. Jews in Cuba breathe the revolutionary air of Che Guevara. They are shockingly poor in material things, lacking such accoutrements of modern life as credit cards, frequent flyer numbers, laptops, and cell phones, but they are rich in spirituality, and rich in engagement with some of the last utopian ideals left in the world. Their aura is such that hundreds upon hundreds of people continue to travel to Cuba to show their support and attempt to commune with them.
Ruth Behar is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. This essay is adapted from her new book, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, appearing this fall with Rutgers University Press.
All photographs in this article are by Havana-based, prize-winning photographer Humberto Mayol, who traveled with Ruth Behar on her journey through Cuba. His work has been widely exhibited in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.
The solitary star has more than one meaning for Cuba’s Jews. It refers to the Jewish star, the star on the Cuban flag, and the red star of the revolutionary on Che’s beret.